I became embroiled in the most bizarre conversation recently. For some reason my lesson took an unexpected turn when a student suggested that Justin Bieber was a member of the shadowy Illuminati, the centuries old secret sect that reportedly rules the world and made famous by author Dan Brown (so not so secret after all). I then made the mistake of suggesting that this couldn’t possibly be true because the Illuminati themselves didn’t exist.
“They must exist,” retorted the student, “because Justin Bieber is a member, and so is Rihanna.”
The evidence base for this assertion was that one erroneous belief (the existence of the Illuminati) was supported by a second erroneous belief (that Bieber was a member of the said shadowy organisation).
Now this might simply seem like one of these daft conversations we often have with teenagers (and there are many) and yet it can be compared with other assertions made by the likes of purveyors of alternative medicine. One such ploy would be to suggest that the research community refuses to conduct trials on this therapy or that homeopathic remedy because it’s so effective that it would render all drugs redundant and destroy the profits of the pharmaceutical companies. In other words, the absence of evidence leads to the assumption that it must work.
Now, I’m not saying that education works in the same way, but I am drawn to the following quote on learning styles (specifically VAK) which appears in a 2001 edition of a book on accelerated learning by a well known educationalist:
The leading practitioners in NLP have spent many years characterising the ‘typical’ attributes of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. The work is not research based. It is pragmatic and based on detailed elicitation and modelling.
Of course, the standout sentence here is ‘The work is not research based’ – why did nobody hear the alarm bells ringing?
In a similar way, many teachers (and once-upon-a-time teachers) use phrases like ‘it’s common sense’ or ‘I’ve always done it that way and it works’. If psychology has taught me anything it’s that so-called common sense assumptions are often wrong (for example, if a large crowd is present during an accident, help is less, not more, likely to be forthcoming). They often use these common sense assumptions to reject evidence outright, while others will cherry-pick the data that supports their common sense assumptions and reject that evidence which does not (so-called conformation bias) – of course, this is not confined to teachers.
Some things, on the other hand, we need to accept (or leave well alone) because we simply can’t test them empirically. It’s difficult for us to claim that play is or is not vital for learning because we can’t ethically conduct a study where one group of children are deprived of play. One way we can is to study the educational attainment of those children who have been brought up in isolation or extreme deprivation (including feral children). The problem here is that many of these children have experienced both physical and psychological abuse, increasing the number of confounding variables and making it nigh on impossible to isolate one specific cause. Another problem would be defining the concept of play – is daydreaming a type of internal play? If so, then how would we prevent a child from daydreaming?
Accepting that some things cannot be tested is one thing; accepting them as fact because they can’t be tested is something else altogether. Then again, accepting that education should be evidence based is perhaps the wrong road to take and accepting that it should be evidence informed is perhaps a better one.
UPDATE: I have recently been made aware that Justin Bieber has, in fact, been assassinated by the Illuminati and replaced with a robot.